Decision-making at all levels of government is being affected by the coronavirus crisis. The Fort Wayne City Council's proceedings last week underscored that new reality.
The council ended up voting 6-3 to approve what until recently might have been a routine request for a $13.1 million, seven-year lease for replacement vehicles and equipment.
That approval, though, was preceded by a thoughtful debate that put to rest any doubt council members can effectively conduct business with most of them phoning in from home.
Councilman Russell Jehl, R-2nd, and others quite reasonably questioned whether it was wise for the city to commit to new spending until the dimensions of the financial crisis brought on by efforts to contain the virus become clearer. Councilman Jason Arp, R-4th, compared the city's situation to that of a couple planning to buy an expensive house just when one of them has lost a job.
“Under extreme circumstances, sometimes plans change,” Arp said. “It's really hard to obligate ourselves to long-term financial commitments.”
Jehl proposed the council approve $9,155,000 to cover lease of replacement vehicles for police and firefighters — and defer a decision on the rest of the agreement.
But the council was in a difficult situation. As sensibly cautious as Jehl's proposal seemed, it might have ended up costing the city more in the long run.
City Controller Garry Morr, who was ill, told the council in a letter that the city usually has seven to nine banks bidding to cover such leases. This time, with concern about COVID-19 growing, the city received just three bids — though fortunately one, from Chase Bank, offered an extraordinarily low 1.224% interest rate.
Deputy City Controller Valerie Ahr and council attorney Joe Bonahoom warned the lease would probably have to be rebid if the council wanted to approve only a portion of it. That might mean the city would have to settle for a higher rate that would cost taxpayers more, Ahr said — or even that no one would be willing to bid the second time around.
Morr wrote that the costs of the lease would be offset when lease agreements for worn-out city vehicles ended this year. “In my opinion,” he wrote, “we cannot jeopardize our ability to purchase our public safety vehicles by having to rebid nor can we afford to pay cash for these vehicles.”
“It was a good deal,” said Councilman Geoff Paddock, who voted to approve the lease and a companion $3 million lease for City Utilities vehicles. But “we do want to be sharpening our pencils as we go forward,” Paddock added in an interview Thursday. “We have to look at what is absolutely essential, and what can be postponed.”
Doing that may require far more communication than has customarily occurred between council and the administration. The circumstances that led to Tuesday's take-it-or-leave it vote may have been unavoidable: certainly, the coronavirus crisis snuck up on us all.
But just as they have had to change the way they handle meetings and news conferences, administration officials and council members need to find better ways to approach complex financial decisions such as the one faced last week. There will be more hard choices to be made as public revenue drops and the city looks for ways to help businesses and individuals in the months ahead.
There were misunderstandings between the mayor and the council long before the novel coronavirus reached America's shores. Eliminating those could be one of those crisis-oriented improvements worth hanging onto after this unsettling and unpredictable crisis has passed.